Big Elk Fire 2002

 

Fire Title Image

 


 

© 2002

                                                                                                             

 

Saturday, August 24, 2002

This story is a personal reflection on my experience during the Big Elk fire near Estes Park, Colorado in July of 2002.  The perspective from which the story is told is strictly my own.  I made no attempt to get an unbiased or objective view of how the fire and the events surrounding it affected my partner, Pam Liebing, our lifelong friends, Lee Kennicke and Mare Bradley, or the couple visiting us at the time of our evacuation, Josh Seldess and Maya Shewnarain.  Therefore, the “truth” of the story is the truth as I perceived the events unfolding.  As my friends will attest, my reality is not always focused in the same way as others in a given situation, but that is I believe, one of the joys of the human condition.  The people in the story with whom we share our immediate Colorado life are real, the rest are  inventions, composites, impressions of people I saw and listened to in these eventful days.  As I said, I have made no attempt to tell what “really” happened during the Big Elk Fire—only to record the events swirling around me as I perceived them.

My partner is also my editor, my best friend, the song that sings in my heart each day.  Upon reading the story for the first time, she said,

“You’ve done a wonderful job telling the story.  Of course, I don’t agree with how you portrayed me in some situations, but this is your story…” 

In addition to being an excellent editor, Pam helped flesh out parts of our experience that I didn’t think to write about, or didn’t see.  For her help and the strength of our partnership I thank her deeply with great love.

Without Lee and Mare the experience would have been many times more terrifying and confusing.  Their warmth and comfort—the rhythms of our lives that flow so easily together—make everything we share richer, more possible, more complete.

Josh and Maya—good companions in a hard situation.   Telling you “good-bye” in the pitch black of the Big Thompson Canyon was one of the most difficult parts of evacuating.

To our friends in Estes Park—known and unknown—a heartfelt thanks to you from all of us, especially the mountain girls. You epitomize the spirit and actions of a caring community.

And…to the firefighters who gave and risked their lives so that we would have homes to come back to.  Thank you.

 

 

At home in the mountains,
Bonnie Beach

 

Wednesday, July 17, 2002

 

There is a fire in Big Elk Meadows.  I wonder, “Is Big Elk the cluster of homes where our friends had a cabin, or is Big Elk the name applied to the whole area off Highway 36 and down a dirt road?”  None of us is very sure.  What we do know is that our home lies on a line with Big Elk Meadows.

That afternoon the fire blows up to 300 acres within the first few hours.    Homes in Big Elk are endangered.  The fire is far enough away from us so that we are not panicked, but we are very concerned.  It’s moving toward Kenny mountain.  The terrain over which the flames race is very rough and nearly inaccessible and it’s hard to get a crew in to the area.  Kenny is a steep, granite-faced mountain bristling with scattered timber.  I am not sure if the terrain description signals good news or bad.  I hope, “granite faced mountain…scattered timber…” means “…not much fuel, hard for a fire to find enough to eat.”  By 5:00 television news helicopters are in place, and we get live pictures of smoke billowing out of a dry meadow. Flames lick their way eagerly through drought-dried pines, fingering their way from tree to tree and then up a huge granite outcrop.  The hope is that the fire does not get to the top of the ridge and ignite the next valley.  What we secretly fear is that it can and will. One of the news anchors says that police are looking for two men in a white pickup with out of state license plates.  For the first time police release information about several other fires that have been intentionally set in the Big Elk area.  We add this new danger to our list of “potential fire starters:”

 

The newscasters conclude that the fire seems to be spreading on two fronts—one toward Big Elk Meadows to the south and east--and the other  in a northwesterly direction.  What we know and don’t say out loud is that the northwesterly spread is in a direct line with our house and Little Valley.

By 6:00 p.m. ash is beginning to fall over Little Valley.  At first it looks like the beginning of a snowfall.  Feathery white bits drift lazily by the windows. As I stand outside, five, six, ten bits land on my head and shoulders.  We catch pieces of ash like snowflakes  in our hands.  An hour later the deck is speckled with airborne litter--white ash that powders when touched.  More disturbing, I find intact pine needles…charred but still whole and very recognizable.  I pick up several.  Roll the needles between my fingers.  Place one in my mouth…It tastes burned.  There are larger and smaller bits of charcoal.  Some chunks I can identify as bark-scales (from a Ponderosa?).  Some are just hunks of crispy black stuff.  How long were they “live” before dropping down onto on our deck?

Walking to dinner at Lee and Mare’s I pick up what appears to be half of an Aspen leaf.  It is black, crisp, delicate, but identifiable.  I hold it gently as we walk on, gathering more “treasures” as we go.  The white ash continues to drift down on us.  We are quiet, respectful, awestruck, afraid?  I ask Pam and Josh and Maya to hold out their hands.  I place my treasures in their palms, take a picture, and we walk on.

 

 

 

Ash is drifting slowly over our homes
Falling silently, steadily.
What is burning—homes? trees?  wildlife?
Firefighters are working frantically against the coming darkness
The sun is setting—a blaze of red and gold
burnishing smoke and clouds.

Ash continues to fall softly over Little Valley

What does it mean?

Small chunks of charred bark and leaves and??  fall with the ash
Airborne debris carried on the breeze in the late afternoon.
Smoke is sucked upward and fans out and across the blue sky.
The sky stretches unchanged over the ravenous flames, behind the spreading smoke.
This is a forest fire.

I wonder what matter has turned to ash just three ridges away?
I hold in my hand what I assume is charred bark.
On our driveway I find a blackened aspen leaf…nearly perfect.
It is impossible to see these things and not to see and wonder
About what exactly is burning.
If ash were falling from the sky over your town
Covering the sidewalks and streets, powdering your porch,
Turning your roof gray, making it difficult to breathe,
And if here and there in the ash there were chunks of charred…charred what?
Wouldn’t you wonder what was burning?
Wouldn’t it raise the hair on the back of your neck?
Wouldn’t you talk to your friends

About this shower of ashes day and night after day and night?

I wonder if, like me, others would be afraid to really know what was happening?
I am afraid of what is coming.
I am afraid it will touch me, my family, my home.
But maybe, like others in this situation,
I try not to think of what this really means.

Later on

Six of us huddle together in a small room.
Night has fallen.
Outside and unseen, ashes continue to fall.
Now they are invisible—hidden in the night.
Great black plumes of smoke rise in the night like specters.
The moon climbs through haze and soot
Then presides as a blurry cyclopean crescent high above.

The lights in our little room are bright and warm.
We play pool.
We tell jokes.
We laugh at each other’s successes and failures.
We close out the fire, the ash, the smoke,                                                        
The bleary-eyed moon…our fear.

 

Still later

Four of us walk home on dirt roads.
We cannot see the ash.
The night sky is deep and black. 
Has the fire banked for the night? Does the monster sleep?  Does it think? 
If we are quiet can we hear it breathe?
Does it lie panting over one ridge, two, three?
The air smells of green pine, soft vanilla, and smoke.
Only 300 acres burned.
Only 300—a relief.
How much is 300 acres? 
How far is the beast from here?

 

 

Tomorrow will be different.
Tomorrow there will be daylight.
Tomorrow I will see the fire shrink back from the planes,
 And slurry, and water buckets—
Tomorrow firefighters will roar back at the flames.
Tomorrow, I will not be afraid.
Tomorrow “they” will stop the fire.
In three or four tomorrows this day, this night will be only a memory…
A story to tell in another room with other friends.
What will I say about how I acted in this crisis?

 

Thursday, July 18, 2002

We are up early because we have promised to take Josh and Maya hiking.  The still dark morning looks healthy and renewed.  I have some reservations about leaving home with the fire still lurking about in the back country.  Lee and Mare said they would take our dog Hopi for the day.  There are stars above and we can see Chapin, Chiquita, and Ypsilon silhouetted in the distance.  It looks like a good day for hiking, but it’s already very warm.  We grab packs and water, put on our boots and drive toward the Park.

Our fears abate as we hike higher and higher into the sky—which is indigo blue and clear.  The heat is intense and I try not to think about fire, or smoke, or falling ash.  J & M are feeling very accomplished.  They have handled the trails, balanced on logs, done a butt slide on a small snow patch, and ascended and descended a waterfall without incident.  We all agree that we have hiked well enough, hard enough, and far enough to reward ourselves with a fruit shake from town on the way home. 

We are descending switchbacks below Loch Vale when I look up and am almost physically staggered by the smoke and haze that thickens the sky in front of us.  I need to be home.  Now!  Pam and I glance at one another.  We try to be easy, keep the focus on the hike, joke about what kind of fruit shake each of us will have when we are down from here.  I want to weep, run, hide, fly.  I want to do anything but play games with and for other people.  I participate marginally and let my partner carry this part of the hike.

Finally, we are back at Glacier Gorge and in our car.  Rising in front of us in the distant sky is a huge plume of smoke, a finger pointing to infinity.  I stop to ask the ranger at the entrance to the parking area what he has heard about the fire today.  I know better, but nodding to the smoky sky in front of us, I am terrified that he will report Little Valley is in flames.   He pauses, scratches, and says, “Gee, you know I really haven’t been following it.  I haven’t listened today so I don’t really know.”  I say thank you as a way of quieting my stomach. I try not to drive the way I would like to, but under the noise of the wind and the tires on hot, hot asphalt I whisper to Pam… “I am not going anywhere but home.  You can drop me off and take them to town.  I am not leaving home again until this thing is over.”

“Of course I am not going to drop you at home.  I agree.  We’re all going home.”  And we do.  The smoke is billowing and thick.  The sky over Little Valley and to the East is sickly shades of yellow, gray, charcoal and black.  As we get closer and closer it looks like the smoke is billowing down the valley.  I am terrified we will round the next corner on Fish Creek Road and see flames.  We turn onto Little Valley Road and as we climb there is more and more smoke.  There are no flames.  My heart begins to slow.  Arriving on Moon Trailway, we can see a bit better, but across the valley there is only haze and hot smoke.  I look up and the sun is a bright orange ball overhead.  It is frightening—as if somehow it is a fireball in the sky just waiting, hovering, hanging before hurtling down upon us.  Out there, across the valley, through the haze and choking air are our neighbors.  We take our packs out of the car and trek across the bridge to our house.  Inside it is eerily quiet.  The sunlight coming through the loft windows lies in orange rectangles across the gray carpet.  It is as if the fire has already entered our home.  To distract us and to give a purpose to the next five minutes, I offer to make fruit shakes for all of us.   

A little later, Pam finds me alone and says that we need to begin thinking what we might pack if we have to evacuate.  That is exactly what I have been thinking.  I turn to her and say, “Yeah, well there is time to think about that.  We can talk about it later.”  I stand outside myself and wonder what I am saying?  I am afraid.  I am panicky.  I am disgusted with the way I am behaving.  I need to quell the fear in my stomach.  I need to respond in a civil and sane and loving way to this person with whom I share my life.  I need desperately to do better.  I think all of this as she is walking out of the room.  I think about calling her back, but instead swallow and walk out on the deck and make a big effort not to think.

The news reports are disturbing.  The fire continues to advance on both of its fronts--southward toward the homes in Big Elk and also northwesterly--keeping it right in line with the top of Little Valley.  We drive over to Lee and Mare’s for dinner.  The 5:00 news is not good.  The fire has grown from 300 to 1200 acres.  It has been upgraded from a Type 3 to a Type 2 fire and a new command team will come in this evening to take over management of firefighting operations.  Two slurry bombers (air tankers) have been working the fire along with four helicopters carrying water buckets.  Firefighters from surrounding areas have been working together to contain the fire on its southeast edge where it is making steady progress toward Big Elk.  However, no one can work on the leading edge of the fire advancing toward Little Valley.  The terrain is too rough.  The bombers have dropped several loads of slurry on this edge and have managed to slow the advance but the heaviest concentration is massed to save the homes in Big Elk.  Residents there are under a voluntary evacuation order.  Some residents have chosen to leave.  There are TV crews “on the scene” asking the same inane questions they ask in every crisis.  The people being interviewed pause in their packing, look over their shoulders, and try to give civil answers.  Their eyes say they are scared.  They should be. 

Everyone is tired after dinner.  We take turns going outside to check the twilight sky.  The smoke has cleared out of Little Valley to a great extent.  But a great white, charcoal lined plume continues to rise, spread, dissipate, and rise again in the sky to the east.  Then across our TV screen comes a news flash.  Two air tankers working on the fires were grounded due to smoky conditions.  At 6:30 pm the decision was made to allow one more slurry drop before dark.  At 6:45, one of the bombers was pulling up out of a steep gully in the area of its last drop when both wings, in a fiery explosion, folded in toward the fuselage.  There was a second explosion. The body of the plane broke in two, erupted in flames and plummeted down through pine trees and buried itself in the ground.  Both men on board were killed and the crash started another fire. We sit, stunned.  Now “our fire” has claimed its first two human casualties.  From deep within, the selfish nasty voice I try to keep quiet wonders, “What will this mean for our homes, our Valley?  What will this mean for the families of the people in the plane?” 

On the 10:00 news we learn that firefighters from Estes Park were near the place where the plane crashed and have been able to contain and extinguish the crash fire.

Friday, July 19, 2002

 

 The morning sun burns white hot in a hazy, smoky sky.  We learn quickly that overnight all air tankers nationwide have been grounded.  It is still impossible to get a ground crew in on the edge of the fire coming toward us.  The only way to slow the flames advancing toward Little Valley is with the use of air tankers.  The fire grows unchecked, wild, and greedy.  The day heats up like a furnace stoked by a hundred mad men.  I am still afraid, but as we soak in the hot tub, I muster enough courage to talk with Pam about what this fear feels like in me.  I tell her I expect more of me.  I tell her I know we need to do some things.  I say I am sorry about my reaction yesterday.  I say I know we need to talk about what to take with us if we are evacuated.  We affirm for one another our understanding that we are interlopers in this valley, that when we decided to live in a house built on stilts, among the trees, on the side of a steep slope, we accepted the risk of the fire-thing that is  alive and whispering at our back door. 

We talk to one another about how strange it seems that while we are preoccupied with the real possibility that our home may burn, the fire seems to be unreal to people just a mile away.  When we drive to town, talk to friends, do our grocery shopping the rest of the world goes on about its business as if there was no FIRE! at all.  We are about to lose our homes and tourists continue to buy cotton candy, the Rotary meets as usual, folks who have made tee times continue to show up and drive, and chip, and putt even though the sky overhead is hazy and thick with smoke. 

After noon, Josh and Maya decide to go do some shopping.  This is our chance and we waste no time getting to work.  Pam organizes and boxes our titles, financial papers, and other important documents.  We leave that box in an accessible place in the loft.  I take out boxes and packs into which our computer equipment can be loaded.  I pull out several duffle bags for clothes and leave them where they can be grabbed and stuffed quickly.  Into one of the duffels I lay the pants, jacket, and shoes I need to do a workshop in New York in early August.  We talk about what other clothes and “stuff” we should take.  Pam gathers our prescription bottles in one place.   I ask about our collection of storytellers.  Pam says, “No.”  I agree.  It feels steadying to do something.  I am still afraid, but I am functioning.  We talk about what to do with our second vehicle—a 24-year-old CJ-7 Jeep--and agree that if we have time, we will drive it out and leave it by our old cabin in the Big Thompson Canyon with our friends who still live there.

In two hours J & M return.  We feel stronger, my partner and I.  We have done something.  We are getting ready.  I begin to fix a mobile dinner.  Instead of Lee and Mare coming to eat with us we arrange to take “the fixin’s” to their house.  Because of the smoke and ash on our side of the valley it is necessary to keep our house closed up.  The sun has been beating on the windows since late morning.  It’s stuffy, smoky smelling, and hot inside.   It will be cooler across the way.  Lee and Mare’s side of the valley gets the afternoon shade. 

We look outside and it seems as if some of the smoke has cleared.  We can see farther down the valley and out toward the Front Range.  There is a band of clear blue sky beneath the smoke at the top of Little Valley.  We are encouraged, but only until we hear the news.  Despite the clearing sky, the lead story at 5 o’clock is still about the fire.  It has more than doubled in size today.  Without the air tankers there is no way to check the advancing flames at our end and firefighters are working feverishly at the Big Elk end.  The Big Elk residents are now under a mandatory evacuation.  In a few hours it will be complete. 

As we eat, we watch the sky at the head of Little Valley.  It continues to clear and turns a deep cobalt blue, a favorable sign we think.  We are sorry for the people of Big Elk.  We are encouraged about our own situation.  Dinner over, we decide to take a quick run up to the lookout at the top of the Valley.

It seems that we are not alone in thinking this would be a good thing to do.  We meet Jeff, who lives in a fifth wheel trailer off the meadow of one of the Cheley outpost camps above us.  He doesn’t know any more about the fire than we do, but it’s comforting to talk to someone else.  A red SUV arrives with mom, dad, a dog, and a small child.  The child promptly lets herself out and climbs underneath the back tires of the SUV.  These folks seem not to know anything about either the fire or child safety. 

 

 

Having satisfied ourselves that the fire remains more than two ridges distant from the top of the Valley, we climb into our truck and bump our way back down toward Lee and Mare’s.  As we get out of the truck, Lee and I are alone for a minute.  She says, “I just can’t believe this is real.  I can’t bring myself to think anything will happen to us.  I know I’m in total denial, but…”  She shrugs and joins the rest of our crew which now includes our three dogs.  We climb the loft stairs where the new pool table beckons as a diversion.  Outside, darkness envelops Little Valley.  Inside the lights shine bright and warm.  For the second time in three days we play together—laughing, taking two and three rotations to put one ball in a pocket.  Thoughts of the fire and catastrophe fade into the pines that whisper and sigh under a cooling, star-laden sky.

Walking home we all comment on how beautiful the sky looks.  The moon is a bit hazy, but there are no clouds at the head of the Valley.  The Big Dipper hangs overhead where it will pour out and keep watch through the night.  “Maybe,” I think to myself, “just maybe the fire beast is sated, has changed its mind, has begun to burn back on itself.  But then, maybe it is only resting like a large monster belching, grunting quietly, hunkering down for the night.  Maybe we are at “King’s X,” a time-out for now.  “Whatever it is,” I think, “it feels good…safer, less threatening.”

Everyone is tired.  Josh and Maya are leaving in the morning and they are packed and ready to hit the road.  We have another laugh, a quick tease about our individual ineptitudes at pool.  There are hugs all around and we wish one another “Good-Night.”  We agree not to set an alarm as Josh and Maya are in no rush to get moving tomorrow.  We fall gratefully into bed.  Pam and I talk for a few minutes.  We agree that the fire situation seems better tonight.  We both fall deeply asleep.

 

Saturday, July 20, 2002 – 12:30 a.m.

Somewhere far away the phone rings…once, twice, and on the third ring I awaken and grab for the receiver.  “Hello?”  No response.  “Hello?”  Still no response and the hairs on the back of my neck are standing on end.  “Hello!”

A recording begins:  “This is an evacuation order.  The fire is one mile from the top of Little Valley.  You have until 8:00 a.m. to evacuate your residence.  An emergency shelter has been established at the Estes Park High School.  When you leave, please place a towel over your front door.  Do not call 911 for more information.”  I sit stunned.  Pam is up and goes to the sliding door to our bedroom deck.

“What was that?”  she asks.  I can see out into the night beyond her shoulder.  The sky is deep blue-black—inky.  There are stars.  It is quiet, but there are lights on in the houses down valley and across the road.

“It was a reverse 911 call telling us to evacuate.  The fire is one mile from the top of Little Valley.”

“Are you sure?  Was it real?” and even as she asks she steps farther into the night--out onto the deck.  Now, we can both see lights coming on in houses all up and down the valley.  We can hear gravel crunching under car tires and see several sets of headlights and red tail-lights are already wending their way down toward Fish Creek Road.  Across the way, a neighbor opens the yawning doors to the great quonset hut that houses his heavy tractors, plow blades, back hoe, front loader, and other excavation machinery.  He lets out a wild, “Waaaaa Ohhhhh!” that echoes into the night.  The big dipper pours out in silence.

 

“Well, we have until 8:00.  Let’s not wake Josh and Maya.  We can go back to bed and  get up in a few hours and then go.” 

“I don’t think so,” I hear myself say.  “I’m going to call Lee and Mare,” and I think to myself they will already be loading their cars.  That will help us get going.

I dial their number.  My hands are shaking.  I can feel my body going  shockey.  My clamped jaw aches.  If I relax, my teeth begin to chatter.  I am cold.  The phone rings and Lee picks up on the second ring.  My heart sinks as I realize she was asleep.

“Lee, did you get a reverse 911 call?” 

“No.  I mean the phone rang and no one answered so I hung up and went back to sleep.”

“We’re supposed to evacuate,” I tell her.  “We have until 8:00 am.”  My stomach is getting tighter and sicker by the minute.  My hands are clammy on the receiver.

“Are you sure?”  she asks.

“Let me do a bit of checking and I’ll call you back,” I say.  We hang up.

Pam is still on the deck watching.  I look from the door.  The lights of almost every house in Little Valley are shining out into star-strewn sky.  I can’t see any smoke—no clouds, no orange glow on the horizon--nothing to confirm or make real the words of the evacuation order.  More vehicles file down the road.  Family cars, Jeeps, pick-ups pulling horse vans, big travel trailers and motor homes, all in motion.  You can almost guess where one household ends and another starts by the proximity certain vehicles keep to one another.  The gravel cracks under wheels, our neighbor yells again, “Whooooooa Ha,” a door slams and house lights shine out below--stars glitter above.  I wonder if we are supposed to leave our lights on or turn them off as we leave.

“It’s real,” says Pam coming back into the house.  “What did Lee say?”

“They didn’t get the call.  I told her I would do some checking and call her back.  Let’s turn the radio on.”  Nothing but music comes from the radio.

I dial a number we have for fire information.  I hear only a recorded message.  The message is no different than at 10:00 p.m. .  “…The fire continues to burn.  Federal agencies are reviewing the advisability of allowing tankers to fly.  At 10:00 a.m. the Big Elk Fire blew up.  With hot temperatures and low humidity the fire doubled in size by 5:00 p.m.   The Big Elk fire now encompasses 2400 acres.  Fire crews estimate that the fire is advancing one to one-and-one-half miles an hour.”

Although I know I’m not supposed to, I dial 9-1-1.  A calmly efficient young woman answers immediately.  “What is your emergency and are you located at 1755 Moon Trailway?”

“Yes,” I answer, “and I’m really sorry.  This is not an emergency, but I live in Little Valley and I think I just received a reverse 911 call telling me to evacuate.  I wonder if you can confirm???”

 

 

 

“You did get a call,” she says.  “Let me get the message and read it to you.  Here it is.  OK--
This is an evacuation order,”  she reads calmly.  “The fire is one mile from the top of Little Valley.  You have until 8:00 am to evacuate your residence.  An emergency shelter has been established at the Estes Park High School.  When you leave, please place a towel over your front door... and then the last sentence reads don’t call 911, but of course…well, it was OK that you did.” 

I thank her and hang up.  “It was real,” I say to Pam.  “We need to get going.”

“We have a lot of time,” she says.

“I’m going to call Lee and Mare back and then we need to start packing.”  Lee and Mare are already gathering things together.  We agree that I will call them back in an hour to see if they are ready to leave. 

An hour later Pam is packed and still insisting that we have a lot of time.  “Maybe we should just lie down for a while and get some sleep,” she repeats.  I suggest that since we have five vehicles between our two houses maybe we should take three of them down into the Big Thompson Canyon and leave them at our old cabin with Jake and Ro. 

“OK.  Then we can come back here.” 

I call Lee and tell her I think we should take one of their cars and the two Jeeps down to Jake and Ro’s.  I tell her we are going to try not to wake Josh and Maya until just before we are ready to go, then we will wake them and they can follow us to the canyon and leave from where we are dropping the Jeeps.  Lee says OK, then… “What are you taking?  Any art work?” 

“No,” I reply, “nothing but the computer stuff, our financial papers, and some clothes.”

“OK,” she says.  “Call us when you are ready to go.”

Outside, the intermittent parade of evacuees continues.  Our neighbor shrieks out into the night every now and then.  Occasionally, we hear things bang and bump in his quonset hut.  When our packing is almost complete, Pam wakes Josh and Maya.  They have slept soundly through the noise of packing, the back and forth of Pam and me on the bridge from our house to the garage (a noisy endeavor), the backing of our two vehicles…I almost run into Maya at the corner of the living room as I return from the garage.  She looks sleepy still—uncomprehending, dazed.

“We need to go,” I say.  “When we take the Jeeps down the canyon, you need to be in your car and with us.”

“OK,” says Maya.  To me it sounds like what she really means is, “Oh Yeah.  OK, no problem.” 

She says, “How long before we need to be ready?”

“Now,” I tell her.  “Ten minutes max,” She looks shocked.  The information begins to coalesce into meaning, and I can see her start to come awake.

 

 

 

I call Ro to tell her what is happening.  She sounds very matter of fact, as if she has come fully awake just by virtue of picking up the phone.  I’m not sure whether I am grateful for her calm, matter-of-fact response or irritated that she is not more startled, panicked…like I am feeling.  No matter.  Now we have something concrete to do…somewhere specific to go.

By 2:00 we are ready.  I call Lee and Mare.  We’ll need to bring one of our vehicles up to their house to get their dogs.  Hopi has been sitting in the back of our SUV since we pulled it into the driveway.  At 2:15 we are in caravan with Pam leading, Mare next, then Lee in their Jeep, then Josh and Maya, then me in our Jeep.  In front of us is another family—a motor home pulling a VW, then a car, a pickup truck, and another car.  As we pass the home of the people who live directly below us, I look for their horses.  They are gone.  I think briefly that when Big Elk was evacuated people were advised to just open corral gates and let their animals loose.  I’m glad our neighbor’s horses are gone.  We turn out onto Fish Creek Road and it is dark and still.  Except for our line of cars there is nothing.  The houses are dark.  People are sleeping.  Out here, life is as it should be at 2:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning.  As we drive on toward Highway 36, my headlights pick up the shadowy form of a woman on the shoulder of the road.  She is walking calmly along in the dark leading a horse.  I slow down to keep pace with her. “Are you OK?”  I call.  “Can we do anything to help you?”

“No thanks.  I’m doing fine.  But thanks for stopping…thanks for asking.”  I wish her well and drive on to catch up with my own caravan that is now out of sight.  As I pass the high school, the designated evacuation center, I notice that all of the lights on the football field are turned on.  There are tables set up and on them sit metal canteens. 

“Wow,” I think to myself.  “This is really nice.  How comforting to see lights in this dark night.  I guess they are getting ready to receive all of us.”

 At the intersection with highway 36, I catch up to my group.  We turn right and then left up Mall Road. The lights of the high school are behind us somewhere.  It’s very dark again.  We are alone.  Our little caravan is the only thing moving on the road as we  turn down into the inky blackness of the Big Thompson Canyon.  Fear swirls in my stomach, but I know the turns of the road almost by heart.  Two miles down, across from the Big Bend Motel we pull off to the left onto the gravel shoulder where the old Tuck-Away Motel sat before the flood of 1976.  There is a dirt road just beyond that leads up to the top of the hill and to the cabins we called home for 20 years.  We stop in file at the bottom of the hill and get out to hug Josh and Maya.  We’ve given them several phone numbers where they might be able to find news of us later. We stand in a shivery cluster saying good-bye.  Our hugs are long and hard and then J & M get into their car and drive off down canyon.  They are swallowed in the darkness before they get through the first curve.  It is still…quiet…We break the spell as we drive on up the hill.

We park the cars just above Jake and Ro’s.  Someone has left a light on in the garage of our old cabin and in the darkness I can see the wooden sunburst with brass letters spelling “Rocky Mountain High.”  I can read the sign in the broken window panel: “Faculty Parking ONLY…”  a gift from several students years ago.  We begin transferring things from our Highlander to the Jeeps so there is room to take people and dogs back to Little Valley for the other car and last minute stuff. We have no idea where we will go, where we will end up—what we might need.  Sleeping bags, towels, a spare blanket, boxes, and computer equipment go from one vehicle to another.  I raise my head and  see Ro coming out of her cabin.  I go to her and she wraps me in a hug that is comforting, strong, welcoming, nurturing.  She buries her head into my neck and says, “I am so, so sorry.  What can we do?”  The warmth of her arms around me and the love in her voice gives me the courage and the anchor I need.

 

“We’re OK, I think.  We need to go back and get the other vehicle.  Then, we’ll go to the high school and register and later on we’ll call and let you know what we’re doing.”

“You can come back.  You can stay here.  Whatever you need….”

We hug again and Ro goes back inside.  I walk back up to where my friends are transferring the last of the computer paraphernalia, luggage, and dogs from one vehicle to another.  By 2:45 we are on our way back to Little Valley. 

It seems strange already to be driving back up Little Valley Road. Some of our neighbors are still coming down.  We notice that Chipperman has moved a few pieces of equipment to Fish Creek Road. We pass another family caravan and wave as we pass.  Three quarters of the way back up to Lee and Mare’s, an Estes Park Police cruiser and two officers greet us.  The driver leans out her window and calmly asks where our houses are.  I tell her and explain what we’re doing.  She asks for our addresses and makes a mark on a clipboard, points at something for her partner.  Looking back at us, she says, “Be careful.”  At the “T” intersection there is a Larimer County Sheriff’s cruiser.   The deputy leans out his window and I explain what we’re doing.  “OK, coach,” he calls.  “You’re OK…” 

At Lee and Mare’s there are a few more things to be packed.  I convince Lee to grab all of the wires and speakers for her computers.  We stuff everything into a box.  Pam and Mare finish up in the other part of the house.  I turn to help Mare with the towel for the front door.  Pam stops me and says, “We ARE going back to our house, right?”

“Yes,” I tell her, “but only to make sure we have what we need and that the house is locked up.”

“We don’t have to leave right now,” she says. 

“OK,” I answer, “I know that.”

Mare and I take two towels.  We hang one over the front door and then hang the other over the railing of the deck to make it easier to see.  We climb into our cars and drive over to our house.

Inside, Pam begins to check through the rooms.   “What can we do?” asks Mare.

“I think all the windows and doors need to be locked, so you can do that,” I say.

“What?  Are we leaving NOW?” says Pam?

“Yes,” I tell her, “there is no reason not to go now.  We need to lock up and get going.”

Pam shoots me a look  and exhales in a way that let’s me know she is NOT happy.  She had planned to evacuate at 8:00.  We have four hours yet.

In five minutes we are ready to go.  Pam hands me a large orange and yellow beach towel.  In the center is a smiling sun.  I’ve had the towel since before we bought the cabin.  It seems like the right towel for this job.  We close and lock the door, then hang the towel out over the screen—yellow sun face smiling calmly out into what is left of the night.  I can’t decide if this is a comfort or wrenching irony.  It’s a towel. 

 

 

We join yet another line of vehicles filing out of Little Valley. Once again we turn right at Fish Creek Road and drive to the high school.  There is no sign of the woman with the horse.  I wonder where they are.  The lights are still blazing away and flooding the football field.  I feel happy about how prepared they are for us, and then I look closely at the stadium.  There are people walking on the track (“Strange,” I think to myself, “…well, maybe walking helps some folks calm down.”)  Then Pam says, “My God.  In the middle of all of this I forgot tonight is the Twenty Four Hour Breast Cancer Fundraiser.”  I can see now that the tables are loaded with cups of water.  There are “officials” in pink jackets.  Some hold stop watches.  People enter and leave the track as we go by.  I want to stop the car and shout, “Don’t you people know there is a fire?  Can’t you see we’ve been evacuated?  How can you calmly go on about your business while my life is coming apart?”  Instead, I just feel my heart sink.  These lights are not for us.  Just three miles down the road and these people are in a different world.  I follow Lee around the school and pull up in a dark parking lot overlooking a practice field and Lake Estes.  I can see into the building—a large room, maybe the student cafeteria.  There is one light on.  Two older women sit alone at a table.  It’s 3:30 a.m.

As we get out of our car, both Pam and I comment on how cold we are.  We have no idea if it is actually cold outside, or if we are just cold from shock.  We walk toward the nearest door.  It is locked so one of the emergency workers has to come and open it for us. 

The room is virtually empty as we enter.  We are some of the first evacuees to arrive from Little Valley.  The two “night watchers,” women from the Red Cross, are kind and receive us warmly.  There is some confusion about how to register two women on a family card where by rights there should be the names of a man and a woman, but that is quickly and smoothly resolved after the two hold a quick conference.  When we are registered, one of the women walks us around showing us where the showers, rest rooms, cots, and beverages are.  I look at all of this, still not believing it is for me, for us…that we are refugees and this is the Red Cross taking care of us.  If we want to sleep here we can sleep on a Red Cross cot, use Red Cross towels, have a Red Cross personal care packet (soap, toothpaste, paper towels), and in the morning—well in a few more hours, the Red Cross will feed us breakfast.  We thank them and decline because of the three dogs waiting in our cars and also because we believe that these facilities, and services are for people who need them.  We haven’t a clue where we will go now or what we should do, but somehow think of ourselves as people who have the means to take care of ourselves. 

“Oh,” says the one woman in response to our question, “of course you can’t bring your dogs in here.  Do come back for breakfast.”

We thank both women and walk in a shaky huddle back out into the night.  The sky is still clear, the night is quiet, the Walk-a-thon is still in progress on the other side of the campus.  We decide to sleep in our vehicles for a few hours, then reconnoiter and decide what to do. 

Pam and I snuggle in the best we can and fall into fitful states somewhere between not-quite-awake and not-quite-asleep in the back of our SUV.  We get colder but can do nothing except push closer together.  We have left the sleeping bags and a blanket in the Jeep down the canyon.  Now, we have nothing but a jacket and one another to use as a blanket.  As the sun rises I startle myself awake with a reflexive kick that lands squarely on Hopi’s shoulder.  She takes it stoically with a grunt and sits up.  Pam stretches.  We look across to Lee and Mare and realize they too are awake.  It is 6:30 am.

“Let’s go in and get some coffee,” suggests Pam.

“Uh huh…and I, of course, have to use the bathroom…NOW!”

 

We walk the dogs and notice that Jeff’s fifth wheel trailer and truck are parked at the end of the lot.  His dog is watching us from underneath the trailer.  He isn’t around so I assume he is sleeping.  Parked across from Jeff is the pop up trailer, pick up, and motorcycle that has been camped at the lookout in Little Valley for the last three weeks.  The rig belongs to some mystery man whom we have neither seen nor met.  Pam called to report him a week ago and she was told he was there by the grace of the U.S. Forest Service as part of a fire watch team.  I think, good for him.  He seems to have gotten out before he had too much to watch. 

When the dogs are done we go back toward the cafeteria door we entered just minutes?  hours?  a lifetime? ago.  We are all walking in fog.  One of the Red Cross ladies scurries across the cafeteria to open the door. 

“Welcome,” she says, “How are we doing?  There is fresh coffee and we’ll have some rolls soon.  Please, help yourselves.  Is there anything we can do for you?”

We thank her and assure her that she has already helped us a great deal.  We find the bathrooms and then Mare and I check the bulletin boards while Lee and Pam study a large topo map.  Soon, we move to the canteens of coffee.  In the back of my mind there is a huge flashing sign that tells me fire will envelop Little Valley soon and our house will burn down.  I want to cry.

“Let’s go to Molly B’s for breakfast,” says Lee.  “Then we can call Cheryl and Kay and tell them where we are so they don’t worry.”  We all agree that this seems like a better idea than eating food intended for people who really need it.  We still function under the delusion that we’re OK, and can take care of ourselves.  So, we pile back into our cars and head for the Molly B.

We order and the server, a friend, asks what we’re going to do.  We tell her we’re not sure.  She asks us what we packed…how we decided what to take. 

“Hmmm,” she says, “Jeez…if I had to evacuate I’d take my guitar for sure, and…yeah, how can you choose?”  This game of “If it were me, I’d take…” is one we will hear played out over and over in the next few days.

“You know,” she says coming back with coffee, “I heard about this guy who bought a young horse down in Big Elk just before the fire started.  The horse had never been in a trailer and when the evacuation order came, the guy was afraid he was gonna have to leave the horse down there, but a neighbor came by.  The neighbor is a horse trainer and he’s really good.  He spent six hours with the horse, and ya know what?  He got the horse into the trailer and they were able to drive out just in time.”

Susan and Randy, the owners of the Molly B come in. 

“Hey,” says our server, “Susan and Randy evacuated from Pole Hill last night.”

They come over to our table and Susan starts,

“You guys too, huh?  I’m frantic.  Like…I packed my mother’s china, and family picture albums, and you know, like at first the evacuation order was a mistake, but we decided to go anyway because we have a business to run and like hey, we can’t be packing, unpacking, and packing again.  We’re staying in our accountant’s condo.  So, I tell Randy, who of course is just standing around saying, like ‘honey,

 

 

we can’t take EVERYthing’–Oh, Men!—what do they know?  Anyway, so…I tell him, ‘Honey…pack a few videos.’  Oh Jeez, you know what?  We own 300 videos, so like, Randy, he packs all 300, God!”

Randy grins.  “Hey.  It was hard to decide and there was a big empty box and so…well, I just took ‘em all.”  We all laugh and know this will be one of the stories of the fire we will tell and retell.

After breakfast, Lee gets on her cell phone. 

“Cheryl?  Yeah.  Now?  OK.  Yeah, we’ll call back when we know for sure.” 

Turning to the three of us Lee says, “Well, we can stay in Diane’s house out on Mary’s Lake Rd.  Diane is in Texas until August taking care of her mom.  Joan has the key and Cheryl says we should go out to Joan’s now.”

We are speechless.  This is way too good, too nice, a godsend.  We get in the cars and drive over to Joan’s.  She isn’t there so we let ourselves into the yard.  It is littered with slides, jumps, hoops, and bridges.  Joan and her dogs are certified, blue ribbon-winning agility trial participants.  Our dogs roam around sniffing.  The four of us sit in the sun and begin to warm up.  This is like an oasis in a nightmare.  The sun is warm, the sky is blue, we are going to be in a house with just the four of us.  There is a fenced yard for the dogs, and no Red Cross cots or hostesses.  I feel like laughing but I know once I start I won’t be able to stop and I will end up crying hysterically.  I need to do something.  I look around and think, “Hopi is athletic.  I wonder if she would do this stuff?”

What begins as a whim as I teeter on the drop-edge of yonder in an island of honey-warm morning sun ends up to be a 10 minute entertainment for all of us complete with feats of daring, clapping, and cheering from the fans.  It’s an interlude before the next part of our odyssey begins.

“And now….THE GREAT HOPI!” I announce and Hopi bounds into the course with me. 

She is a star.  She jumps through the tire hoop, hops over a hurdle, barrels up an incline and across a narrow plank bridge then scrambles down the other side.  Everyone applauds.  Loki and Kiah bark.  Next, I run Hopi at a steep “V” incline that I am not sure she will tackle.  She whips up one side and down the other as if this is something she does all the time.  We do the circuit once more and then Hopi looks at me as if to say, “OK, I can do this stuff and now I don’t want to do it any more.”  I sit down in the sunshine and she wanders off  on her own.

Soon, Joan and her dogs come home.  They greet us warmly. 

“Well,” she says, “come on.  Let’s get you into the house.”  We drive several blocks and turn into the driveway of a large log home.  “This is it,” says Joan.  “There is a renter up over the garage.  I’ll tell him you’re here.  Here’s the key.”  Joan tours us through the house, shows us the dog run, explains how the TV works and then says, “If you need me just call.  You are welcome to come over any time.  I think you folks just need to be quiet for a while.  See ya later.”

We look around in disbelief.  We’ve been evacuated, said good-bye to our company, and registered at a shelter.  We’ve had breakfast, talked to and been cared for by friends, and now find ourselves floating in a calm, quiet sea.  We are safe, sheltered, and alone with our own family and our dogs all in the space of nine hours.  The miracle will not be whether or not our homes survive…they either will or they won’t. 

 

 

The fire will either crest the top of our valley and devour its way to Fish Creek Road or it won’t.  The fire and its path is up to the weather, the terrain, the firefighters, and fate.  The miracle is that we are together, our dogs are OK, and that our friends have worked together to put us in this wonderfully safe and comfortable space in a matter of minutes.  Later on we hear about the phone calls that worked this miracle:

Ollie (in Estes Park) to Carolyn (in Greeley):  “Little Valley was evacuated last night.  Don’t your Illinois friends live there?” 

“Yes.” 

“Well, call Joan.  She can open Diane’s house.  Diane won’t be back until mid-August.  Put them there.”

Carolyn (Greeley) to Cheryl (Allenspark):  “Cheryl, I’ve called Lee and Mare and they’re already out of Little Valley.  If you talk to them tell them they can stay at Diane’s.  They need to go over and get the key from Joan.”

“OK.”

Cheryl (Allenspark) to Joan (Estes Park):  “OK, I’ve talked to them.  They’re at Molly B’s.  As soon as they finish breakfast they’ll come over to your house.”

“That’s fine.  I’ve got the key.”

Diane (from Texas) to Joan:  “My God, I heard Little Valley was evacuated.  Don’t you have friends from Chicago who live there?  Put them in my house.  They’ll be fine there.”

“I just did.”

We rest and sleep for most of the day.  We take the dogs for a walk and they seem to settle down.  We turn on both the TV and the radio and leave them on all day.  It takes awhile to learn when the news is updated, how many times the same reports are repeated, and which news source has the most accurate information.  Both the TV and radio together provide better information than either by itself. 

That night we go back to the high school for our first briefing meeting.  As we look around we see some of our neighbors and a lot of folks we don’t know.  Jeff is sitting quietly on the perimeter wall just watching everyone.  When we walk by and call “Hey, Jeff!”  He nods and smiles slightly.  We see several other people we recognize.  One concentrates on the food and devours his share and more, eating nonstop throughout the meeting…two helpings of main course, several beverages, two pieces of cake, hands full of cookies.   There are others who enjoy the chance to socialize with neighbors.  Some families keep to themselves and don’t talk much, either among themselves or with others.  Parents are busy all over the room entertaining children with board games, dolls, coloring books, and trips to the maps and pictures posted on the walls.  Some people, Pam and Lee among them, come in and make a beeline for the latest press release and topo maps.  Neither Mare nor I are very good at reading maps, we mostly look at the people and talk with each other. 

It’s obvious the firefighters in the room have been out on the fire line all day.   Their faces look reddened and wind-burned; some still wear soot and sweat stains. Most have two-way radios, water bottles, and have small tools clipped to their belts.  Their boots are muddy and scarred, the bandanas around their necks are crumpled and damp looking.  Some carry yellow hard hats.  All wear yellow shirts that are variously streaked with charcoal and brown and gray smudges.  Some wear suspenders, some don’t.  Some of them stand in the back of the room drinking coffee or water.  A few go to the front of the room.  They are the ones who will deliver the briefing. 

At the appointed time, a P.R. person in a green forest service shirt and pants makes announcements and introduces a Red Cross coordinator, the local fire chief, and the team leader of the fire fighters.  The team leader gives us an update on the day’s work. Because the fire is now a potential threat to Estes Park, it has been upgraded to “Type I.”  A Type I management team and four more hot shot teams  are expected on the scene later this evening.  This means that we will have access to every resource needed to fight this fire—personnel, equipment, and money.  We learn that firefighters have  been working all day to save the homes in Big Elk Meadows.  Not one has burned.  However, because the air tankers are still grounded, no work has been done at our end of the fire.  The advancing flames are still  a mile-and-a-half from the top of Little Valley.  The team leader is very happy about the additional teams coming in.

During the next three nights we come to appreciate how informative and professional the briefings are.  What we learn to dread is the Q & A session after the day’s update.  Someone inevitably asks an unrelated question or uses 5 or 10 minutes to pontificate about what he or she knows about firefighting.  The professionals are very patient and courteous through all of it. 

 

Sunday, July 21, 2002

The Q & A on the second night is the worst.  We are all scared, functioning on little personal information, and sometimes we don’t acquit ourselves very well in public under these circumstances. 
The president of our homeowner’s association announces that she is speaking on behalf of a group of residents who have met and have some questions to ask.  In a very folksy way, our president manages to ask questions and bring up issues that everyone wants to know about, but doesn’t want to ask or know how to ask about.

“Our group met this afternoon, and we just have some questions…”

“OK…”

“Well, the first is that it is obvious that the Estes Park Fire Department made the decision to sacrifice Little Valley to save the town…”

SD, Fire Chief:  “My men have been working in Little Valley all day.  We’ve inspected every home, turned off propane tanks, made sure the roads were clear, positioned tankers, and tagged every driveway.  There has not been any decision of that kind.”

“OK, well, you know…some of the people just felt that way.  I don’t, of course, but some folks just thought that…OK.  Well the next thing is about security.  You made us get out.  Then you put a law officer at the entrance to our road, but there’s some have been going to Carriage Hills and walking across to get stuff out of their homes.  Now the rest of us left good stuff in our houses, and we can’t get back in.  How do we know thieves aren’t coming to rob us?  If it’s OK for one or two Little Valley folks to walk in, how do the rest of us know our homes are safe?”

 

 

VB, Type I fire boss:  “Little Valley has been evacuated.  No one is allowed back in.  We are not aware of anyone who has broken that order.  Of course there are miles and miles of open land.  That’s impossible to patrol.  I suppose it wouldn’t be hard for someone to walk in…”

Questioner:  “Well…that’s what I mean.  How do we know our homes are safe with people just walking back in up above the police barrier?”

VB:  “M'am, we are not aware of anyone violating our evacuation order.  If you would like to talk with us about it, we will look into it…”

Unidentified man:  “What right do you have to tell me that I have to get out of my own home?  What if I wanted to stay?  I can…I have the right to go back in and get whatever I want…”

There is a collective groan and stirring in the audience.

VB:  “No sir.  You don’t.  There is a standing evacuation order and you are obligated to leave and stay out of that area.”

Unidentified man:  “Where does it say that?  Is that the law?  You have no right…”

Larimer County Sheriff:  “Sir, that IS the law.  When you are evacuated you MUST leave and you cannot return until the evacuation order is lifted.”

Man:  “Where is that written?  I want you to show me where it says that you can lawfully remove me and force me to leave my home.”

Sheriff:  “It is a county ordinance.  I can’t show you the ordinance here and now, but if you come down to my office I’ll be glad to show it to you.  In the meantime, you need to know this…My deputies have been working very hard to save lives and to assist people during this emergency.  I do not want to have to waste their time OR put their lives in danger over someone who thinks they’re exempt from the law.  You folks were evacuated for your own safety.  We helped you get out and we expect that you will stay out.”

Questioner:  Smiling and nodding as if she knew this is what would happen and is now just pleased as all get-out that the “violator” is getting his public come-uppance.  “Well…this next question is for Scott (the Fire Chief)…what are you going to do to help us learn about how to make our homes more fire safe?”

Chief:  “When the evacuation order has been lifted I will be happy to come and see your group.  We can talk together then about what measures need to be taken by homeowners.  You can also phone the fire station and a team of volunteers—students from CSU—will come out to individual homes and create a fire mitigation plan with homeowners.  There’s a lot that needs to be done, not the least of which is to get rid of roofs that have shake shingles.”

The meeting dribbles to a close.  The best news is that the fire is 30% contained and slurry bombers are flying once again.  We also hear that the fire was caused by a white Jeep whose occupants were two men.  The Jeep was experiencing engine trouble and then the engine quit.  The men pushed the Jeep to

 

the side of the road and the hot underside of the vehicle ignited dry grass alongside the road.  The men grabbed a shovel and a blanket but the fire grew up too fast for them to handle.  It apparently took a day or two for the men to come forward and talk to police.  The Jeep carried out of state plates.  The men are very sorry and no criminal charges are being filed at this time.  

We also learn some interesting things about the pink slurry dropped by the air tankers:  slurry dropped on houses is very easy to clean up; slurry contains fertilizer and seeds that begin immediate regeneration of ground cover as soon as the fire is out, and that slurry dropped on the leading edge of a fire helps to cool the area enough so that firefighters can get in and work around the burn area to contain the flames.

 

Monday, July 22, 2002

Interestingly, the time passes quickly each day.  Whoever is up first turns on the radio and TV for the latest news, although usually it is a repeat of what we heard just before going to bed.  We have learned when “fresh” news comes on in Estes Park.  It is the same for both the TV and the radio.  Generally the networks don’t have anything new until 12:00—maybe even as late as 5:00.  We read, talk, walk the dogs, visit with friends and make excursions to the high school as it is the nearest place our cell phones can get service.  We talk with family in Minnesota, Illinois, and California. We feel as if we are in a small bubble all alone.  In our world there is the FIRE:  where it is, who’s working on it, what it’s doing.  In the outside world, the “real” world, life goes on.  People along Fish Creek Road have been put on alert, but even for them “alert” only means, “Listen for the phone…”  For the rest of the world Estes Park is still a tourist destination.  Elk graze on the golf course, construction sites continue to grow, meetings are held, grocery shopping is most busy on Fridays and Mondays, people go hiking, cars break down and get fixed, dinner conversation concerns family, friends, and the stock market, and so it goes.  In our bubble, we nap, and tentatively, slowly, gingerly talk about when we might be able to get back to our homes and what we would do if only we could.

At least once a day we drive to the entrance to Little Valley to pick up the paper and our mail, and to “howdy” the sheriff’s deputy on duty.  Except for the first morning we drove back just hours after we evacuated…when smoke was billowing over the area and we were sure our homes were in the grip of the fire beast, the pilgrimage to Little Valley is comforting.  One time we find  a gathering of seven or eight neighbors around the sheriff’s cruiser.  Another time Madeline, one of our neighbors, tells us that when the evacuation call came at 12:30 a.m. she was so panicked she jumped into her car and raced down the Valley to Fish Creek Road and the relative safety of a friend’s home. Just before 7:00 a.m. the friend suggested they return uphill to Madeline’s house to get some clothes and whatever else she might want.  “If Linda hadn’t said that to me, I would be standing here in my p.j.’s and robe…just the same way I arrived at her house.”

On the radio we hear that great progress has been made on the leading edges of the fire.  Hot shot teams have been dropped between the fire and Little Valley and they are creating a fire line and setting back burns.  By 2:00 p.m. the radio announcer says there is speculation that residents of Little Valley will be allowed back into their homes on Tuesday morning.

At the briefing Monday evening, the team leader announces that the fire is 50-60% contained as of 4:00.  He says he is fairly confident that the containment will be much more in a few hours.  He also says that he is pleased to announce that although we will remain on alert status, residents of Little Valley can return home at 8:00 a.m. Tuesday morning.  We cheer and clap with wet eyes…  “This will be our last briefing meeting.  The shelter will be closed on noon Wednesday July 24.  At that time we expect all of you will be back home.” We go eagerly back to Diane’s and begin to pack up.

 

Tuesday, July 23, 2002

We wake early and clean the house.  Two of us monitor the wash while two others go to town to gather muffins and scones for breakfast, and a get a gift to leave for Diane.  By 7:45 we are standing outside of the house—cars packed, dogs whining, and cameras at the ready.  We take several pictures, pile in and by 8:00 we set off for Little Valley. 

Turning onto Little Valley Road that morning, my heart is in my throat.  I am trying not to cry, but I am so excited to be coming home it is hard.  Pam and I hold hands…we can’t talk.  At the bottom of the road, a Forest Ranger (also a Little Valley resident) is waiting to greet residents.  We stop the car and she gives us some information.

“You’ll find your property tagged with a green or red flag.  That only means whether the property is defensible or not.  We’ll have a meeting in a couple of weeks where Scott will come back and tell us about how to be more fire safe.  In a few days there will be a team of firefighters coming around to describe and locate your house for a revised topo map.  You can see the map on the county website, or there will be copies at the fire house.  Welcome home, neighbors.”

We drive slowly up the hill, seeing everything with new eyes.  The trees, the almost smokeless skies, the road, and our homes.  Everything looks fresh and sparkling.  A bright yellow fire tanker is parked at the first turn-off.  Two firefighters wave, leaning against the front fender of the truck.  I ask Pam to take a picture of them and then I stop the car and get out to thank the men for what they have done.  As I shake each of their hands I begin to cry.  The men look embarrassed and grin.  Maybe they even say, “Aw shucks, m'am…”  I return to the car and we start up the road again. 

We begin to notice the tags on each property…strings of surveyor’s tape fluttering in the morning breeze. 

“I am going to guess we got a green flag,”  I say with more assurance than I feel, “but we’ll know soon enough.”

One property is flagged green for the house and red for the barn…most we pass are flagged green.  At the “T” we turn left and then go straight onto our road.  The first house we pass flies green streamers, the next red.  We drive down the last hill and see our house.  The smiley sun towel is still hanging from the front door.  I remember thinking when I put it there, “If the firefighters get this far, maybe it will cheer them.  If we get to come back and our house is still here, it will be a good greeting.”  It is.

One of the ponderosas at the top of our drive is flying a green streamer.  Pam and I grin at one another.  I start to cry again with relief.  “There are still things we can do,” says Pam, “but I am so grateful to John and Kandis (the designers, builders, first owners of our home) for their careful planning and maintenance…and I am so happy that we got a green flag.” 

The propane tank from our grill is sitting in the middle of the driveway and for an instant I have a flash of the Estes Park firefighters moving quickly in teams from one home to another, working their way down valley and securing homes…readying them for defense, readying them for the lapping tongue of flame working its way toward the top of the ridge.  I think of the firefighters risking their lives to tag and secure our homes…then I am just overwhelmed at being home.  We hug, we cry, we look.  Hopi jumps out of the car and races around sniffing and barking. 

 

We take down the smiley towel and tentatively open the door.  Inside, it still smells smoky.  No matter.  Our house is here.  It’s safe.  We’re home.  We move our duffels back into the house, unpack, and just look around.  Ash has filtered through the closed doors and windows and there is a thin film of it everywhere.  Pam asks if I want to drive around and just look at the other houses—to see how they got tagged.  I say OK, but feel like this is somehow a violation, as if, in looking, we will be invading our neighbor’s privacy.  Pam says it’s important for us to see what might have made the difference in how homes got tagged, that perhaps in checking things out, we’ll know better how to work on our own property.

We drive from the top road and work our way down.  Most of the red flagged houses have a lot of trees and underbrush growing right up against decks and house walls.  Some homes have shake shingled roofs.  From our drive, we do have some ideas about how we can improve the “defensible space” around our own house.

Later on, we make arrangements with Lee and Mare to drive back to the canyon to get our Jeeps.  Jake and Ro are gone, but they’ve left us a note on the door.  It says us how happy they are that we are safe and able to go back home.  Our drive back to Little Valley feels like we are making a small parade of celebration.

 

August, 2002

It’s been several weeks since our evacuation.  Memories drift in and out of my consciousness at strange times.  Some are touching, some comical, some bizarre, and some with no texture or color at all:  the friend who offered to drive up an hour and a half just to give us two more hands…and how she offered prayers for our safety and a mass for our safe return; the friend who called just to say she was praying for us; the five messages my brother left on our phone…each one a version of, “Well, your phone is still answering.  We’re just checking to see if your house is still there.  It is…”  The kindness of our friends who found us a safe, quiet space where we could be together; Ro coming out to comfort and hug in the night, the many phone calls from our families in Minnesota, Illinois, and California; the funny things each of us packed without telling anyone else:  glass paper weights, chap stick, an electronic black jack game, a picture of a new grand baby, a favorite blanket, an old day pack, four little stuffed animals I got from my mom’s house—we call them “the frigs,” a favorite jacket, a pocket knife, Pam’s brand new hiking boots, hiking poles, a favorite pillow, the plastic coyote “Margarita” that sits near the computer, books to read.

A week after we return home, we notice a large plume of smoke tinged with red and angry gray pushing skyward from the area in back of Little Valley.  For a while our stomachs churn while we search for an answer.  We think, “The fire is back.”  “It’s blown up again.”  “It’s starting all over.”  We know there are still hot shot teams mopping up in the area where the smoke is rising, putting the fire to bed, and yet…

Later we hear on the radio that the smoke is coming from a back-burn set by the hot shots.  There was an island of unburned material and it was fired for safety.  By evening, the smoke disappears.

 

 

 

For another week small planes and helicopters continue to fly over the fire every day.  We hear a story about a woman in Pinewood Springs who saw smoke and a spot fire starting at the far end of her back yard.  She yelled to her son to call 911, and just as she turned back to the fire a helicopter appeared out of nowhere.  It flew to a natural spring close by, filled its bucket with water, flew back to the woman’s house and doused the flames in her yard.  The planes and helicopters are comforting.  We’re very glad for them.  I think about where the hot shots sleep.  Do they stay in the back country with the fire or do they come out to rest in shifts?  I think mostly they go in and come out in shifts, but still…I wonder…

On a Wednesday evening we finish dinner and are about to go to the out-garage at Lee and Mare’s to play pool.  There is a news flash on the television.  A helicopter working on the Big Elk fire has just crashed.  The pilot radioed, “Helicopter down,” and then there was nothing.  We run outside.  In back of our valley a spire of white/gray smoke is rising.  A small plane circles overhead…then another helicopter.  It takes a long time for more news to come in.  We play pool with the radio on and walk outside often to monitor the smoke and the aircraft overhead.  At 10:00 we learn that another pilot is dead.  He was a renowned microbrew master in the Boulder area--one of the engineers of the beer we drink while we play pool.  He was a husband.  He was a Vietnam vet.  He was well respected.  He was an excellent pilot.  He was loved.  He was…He was.  It has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars, hundreds of people, and three lives to save our home.  I want to remember that.  I don’t want to let it go.  There are times in my life when I need to count and remember the cost of certain events—good or bad.  I need to make the memory a part of me, like the sureness and certainty of breathing.  When I think about my home in Colorado, I want to remember what it cost for it to survive.  I want to remember that in the same way I need to remember to breathe.  I don’t want to get three years out from this summer and tell this as just another story to visitors…or to yawn some winter night and say, “Hey, remember when we had to evacuate?”  I want these men who died to be as real to me as the breath I draw.  I want to remember that our home was saved at a huge cost…and we paid nothing.  I want to live true to the grace with which we have been showered.

 

We’ve had company, cooked dinners, talked with neighbors.  Under the unwavering and creative leadership of  our home owner’s president we’ve done a considerable amount of limbing, trimming, gathering, and piling of slash and debris.  We are much more fire-safe than we were before the evacuation.  I flew to New York, did a day-long workshop and then returned to Little Valley in the middle of the night.  When I drove back from the airport, the entrance to Big Elk Meadow was still blocked.  Even at 1:00 in the morning I could see the burn spot where the slurry tanker crashed.  It is  eerie—a dark scar even by starlight.  Pam says she looks at everything with different eyes now.  Each day it’s as if things are fresh and new and alive.  The colors are brighter, the nights more defined.  We still start any time the phone rings after 9:00 p.m. 

 

I was born and raised in California close to the Pacific Ocean.  There, I learned to respect the tremendous power of wind and surf.  I’ve lived in the Estes area for 25 summers. Moving here, I learned to respect the mountains in the same way I  do the ocean.  No matter how strong or knowledgeable one is, there are powers in nature that are bigger, stronger, and totally immune to the wishes and ambitions of the human species.  In the mountains, my appreciation of the indiscriminant power of nature gives me a keen perspective on my place in the world.  Here, I have had exciting adventures and been exposed to heartrending disasters:  the chaos wrecked by the Big Thompson Flood that killed 120 people;  the dam that burst in Rocky Mountain National Park spilling millions of gallons of water through downtown Estes, and  the heart break of friends when their daughter was killed  by a drunk driver in the Canyon. Now, in the summer of ’02 there is the Big Elk Fire, the threat to our home, and the three men whose last breath was drawn in the back country just a few miles from where we live.

 

 

 

 

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Little Valley Owners' Association
5000 Little Valley Road
Estes Park, CO 80517